By MATTHEW DORAN
Choosing the right school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make.
In recent years, that decision has become even more difficult with the growing number of specialised early learning centres being established across Adelaide, particularly within the private sector.
Dr Victoria Whitington, Senior Lecturer in Child Development at the University of South Australia says that both parents and schools are driving the increase in the number of such centres.
“Parents and schools are becoming more aware of the importance of the early years to children’s later development and learning, and recognise that having such a site on their grounds enables them to start children’s education in the preschool years in the best possible way,” Dr Whitington said.
“Schools see a benefit in a smooth transition from an onsite early years preschool or childcare centre to the compulsory years of schooling.
“One site is more likely to have an overarching approach and philosophy, making it easier for parents to understand and feel confident in the site as a suitable place for their children.”
Dr Whitington also said that parents may be interested in the opening of these centres for reasons of convenience.
“Parents have the advantage of dropping off more than one child at one rather than multiple sites,” Dr Whitington said.
“Also it provides parents with certainty of entry to highly desired private schools.”
Director of Ignatius Early Years at Saint Ignatius’ College Norwood, Rosemary Allen, said that while some parents may send their children to such centres in the hope that they teach the reception curriculum to pre-schoolers, the reality is very different.
“Certainly wanting preparedness for school would be seen as a reason for establishing such a centre,” Mrs Allen said.
“The problem lies in that what some people see as preparedness for school is a very narrow view of knowing their letters and writing their name.
“It is more about having the ability to listen and pay attention, to be able to follow rules and regulate behaviour, to be able to stick to the topic in a conversation and to know a little about getting on with others.”
In the same way that primary and secondary schools have different approaches and educational philosophies, early learning centres can offer different environments for children.
“There are a variety of approaches used, and one might suit an individual better than another,” Dr Whitington said.
“Parents need to inform themselves of the approaches that best suits their child and family, however in choosing I think parents also need to make one or more visits and pay attention to what they feel when in the centre to determine its suitability.
“After all, they know their children best.”
Mrs Allen agreed: “I think parents find it difficult to know the difference between models and need it explained to them.
“It’s about what is best practice and what you consider brings out the best in children.”
Addressing concerns that such centres impose too much structure into the lives of young children, rather than allowing more informal play, Mrs Allen said that often there is increased exposure to things necessary for well-rounded development.
“Children these days spend much of their ‘home time’ in front of televisions and computers, exactly the things that dull the brain, certainly making the brain more passive,” Mrs Allen said.
“Parents these days are just too busy to have time for their children or to let children ‘go and play’. Parents have also become afraid to discipline children.
“This means that the very positive encouragement and discipline that early years educators give young children is often the first time they hear the word no.
“For some children they find this really hard, especially as this is often the first opportunity children have where they have to consider others rather than themselves.”
Mrs Allen said that the benefits of such early learning programs can be seen a few years into their primary schooling.
“They are usually more ‘ready’ and confident about attending school. They have developed social skills to get along with others, persistence and resilience for when things get hard, organisational skills and the beginnings of some emotional intelligence,” Mrs Allen said.
“Special needs are also picked up earlier. For example, we are now identifying Asbergers and mild Autism earlier at three years old, rather than at age six or seven, simply because children are with their peers and any real differences or restrictions to participating fully are recognised – more than what they would have been if children had stayed at home.
“The research does show that longer term benefits in the more academic areas such as literacy and numeracy aren’t normally seen until year three.
“For example, a year three student’s vocabulary and comprehension is determined by their pre-literate vocabulary – something they gain from coming from a family that uses complex language or an early learning centre.”
Mrs Allen said that by looking at the way early childhood is treated in parts of Europe, Australian centres can inspire more creative thinking in our children.
“Early Childhood centres in Sweden allow children to wander through forests,” Mrs Allen said.
“Our safety rules and regulations would prevent us from allowing that, unless we had a ratio of one adult to three children.
“We would love to do this so that children could experience risk as well, something they are so protected from here in Australia.
“The best minds in the world say we need more creative thinking and this starts at a young age.”
The Ignatius Early Years Centre that Mrs Allen manages works under the ‘Reggio Emilia’ early childhood philosophies, developed in Italy.
“The Reggio Emilia model has become so popular because it was identified as ‘World’s Best Practice’ in the 1970s,” Mrs Allen said.
“The trouble is that Reggio Emilia is based in Italy and you can’t pick up Reggio Emilia and copy it in Australia. Our context is so different.
Reggio Emilia was developed in a province in Italy of the same name, where early childhood education is considered a funding priority by its municipalities,
“64 per cent of the whole education budget [in Reggio Emilia] is spent on early childhood.
“The ‘Image of the Child’ in Reggio schools is that children are incredibly capable, and we need to give them opportunities to show this through various means.”
Dr Whitington said that it is important to put in place a curriculum that is age appropriate.
“It is important for the early years of education to remain appropriate to children’s ways of learning, and in early childhood from birth to eight years a play-based curriculum is best,” she said.
“I do recognise that children’s learning and development is culturally shaped, meaning that there will be variations between communities and cultures in the way early education is approached.”
Mrs Allen said that the decisions on how to approach early childhood education are made at a number of levels.
“From 2011, Early Childhood Centres need to use the Early Childhood National Curriculum to guide their curriculum,” Mrs Allen said.
“This means we need to use our own philosophies, for example the Ignatian philosophies that Ignatius Early Years is governed by, plus the national curriculum and the Reggio Emilia way of doing things as guides to inform our curriculum.
“Our own particular community also needs to guide the decision making processes.”
Image by Flickr – Pink Sherbert Photograhpy